Sexual Safety Part 1: The Personal Side
While polyamory is definitely not all about sex, sexual contact is part of many, if not most, romantic relationships. As a result, concerns about safer sex and STIs are not only an important part of relationship agreement, but also a possible point of contention if different people in a relationship network have different risk assessments.
I’m going to address a lot of these things more clinically in a couple of posts later in the week about risks to consider when fluid bonding with more than one partner as well as ways to have discussions around who to be fluid bonded with and when. Today, I want to talk about this from a personal perspective.
I’m going to open this with something that used to be a very sensitive and challenging personal disclosure: I bloodtest positive for HSV-1. I probably got it from my parents who both get cold sores, when I was a very little kid. I don’t remember ever having a cold sore; I didn’t become aware of this until I was pregnant with my now-six-year-old because every doctor I saw and talked to about it in the years prior to that said they only tested if there were sores (mouth or genital) to swab at the same time. This non-testing without symptoms is now firm policy at Planned Parenthood, although still not in some doctor’s offices. In the nearly seven years since I’ve discovered this diagnosis, I’ve disclosed it to all potential sexual partners, and said “it’s ok with me if you don’t know your status on HSV 1 and 2, so long as you aren’t currently in a breakout when we make out or do sexual things that involve the area breaking out.” If asked, I tell people that my attitude is that most adults have been exposed to HSV 1 or 2 just through kissing and family members who get cold sores shedding in the day before, and that for myself, I don’t care whether they test for it. If someone is immune-supressed in their network, they should know my status just in case, but since I don’t have outbreaks, it’s unlikely that I asymptomatically shed often.
This has received a very mixed response. In short-term relationships, or friendships with benefits, or play partners, more than half of the overtures made have been retracted after folks hear this. HSV has an immense amount of stigma attached, and especially in the “single and not looking for anything too serious” pool, people hear that I have it and turn and run. However, there is also a big subsection of people who think just as I do - that disclosure is important but that exposure to the actual condition isn’t just as big a deal as loud stigma that makes people think that this skin condition is dirtier and sexier than other skin conditions.
And I’ve been very lucky. My long term partners have been people who are open to data and to looking at what the actual risk to them is. They both initially chose to use barriers but over time decided to not any longer, because not knowing where my exposure was, but it being generally safe to assume it was on my face as a child, just kissing was the biggest exposure to me they were having, and neither of them even suggested not doing that. I’ve had metamours more than once who were concerned about their exposure indirectly through our hinge partner. Mostly, time and the shared partner repeating data about transmission before we changed anything about fluid bonding calmed fears; although in one case it didn’t and it resulted in a change in who the hinge was fluid bonded with. I find it kind of ironic that it tends to come up in these relationships long after kissing is more likely and barried sex nearly as likely to have transmitted HSV 1 as unbarriered sex; but stigma is really strong, and logic doesn’t always sway the feelings that folks have about STI risl, and the assessments they make accordingly.
As I said at the start, I’m going to do a thorough run-through of STI risks and different assessments people might have, and how to negotiate when you and your partner have different ones, as well as considerations to take into account if you’re thinking of changing fluid bonding agreements, later on this week; but I wanted to give a little window into a wrinkle that a lot of these discussions don’t take into account: that you might come into a negotiation with an infection that has a lot of stigma attached, that might activate people’s worries before you even begin negotiating.